Artist Rob Heard has embarked on an extraordinary and awe-inspiring feat. He is creating an exhibition of 72,396 shrouded figures, each individually hand stitched, to remember soldiers who died at the Battle of the Somme but who still have no named grave. He is doing this by himself, with no help. He has been working for 3 years, he has 18 months to go, cutting, sewing and stitching all day, every day. All to honour men who died almost 100 years ago, so that they will never be forgotten.
If this incredible and enormous task sounds difficult to you, add to the mixture that Rob also suffers from chronic pain in his hands.
Is he bonkers? (Quite possibly) Why is he doing this? The answer is difficult for him to answer because it runs to the core of who he is and forces him to struggle with demons he would rather leave be.
A common question is: “Surely it would be easier and more straightforward for a team of people stitching to create the shrouds?”
The answer is of course complex, there are many reasons. In remembering the soldiers that died Rob firmly believes that:
”Each man deserves his moment in time, by one man who happens to be me.”
Remembering each of the 72,396 men who died but who still have no named grave is part of the ritual of remembrance. If many people remember a few each, that is not true memory, one person must remember them all equally.
But at its heart is another, more private reason; following a car crash in 2012 Rob has had a series of difficult surgery on both hands and still has more operations to come. He has to deal with constant pain in his hands. His wife Karina tells how he lies in bed at night with his arms straight up, because that sometimes helps to ease the pain. This chronic pain led to depression; a condition that many of us can relate to and understand the debilitating nature of it.
So how on earth can it be that this man can stitch seventy two thousand shrouded figures? Once completed he will have worked around 15,000 hours. Often up to fifteen hours a day, every day for almost four years.
Incredibly he talks about how stitching this remarkable remembrance project is a coping mechanism.
He says: “I was suffering a lot. But by putting myself in an environment with all these soldiers and thinking about the pain that they went through; some of whom had been lying in shell holes with their legs blown off, gave me a sense of perspective. How dare I complain? It gave me a sense of proportion of how bad things can be, and people can cope with them.”
This is a video of him answering the often repeated question what happens if you get Repetitive Strain Injury, and talking about the pain in his hands and why and how he copes:
He also talks about the news following his car accident, that he would probably not be able to work again in the same way, and the affect this had on his depression. Prior to the accident Rob had designed and built magnificent magical tree house sculptures called Bough Houses. Intricate staircases leading to fairytale turrets Rob’s Bough Houses are like a magical tree world from Tolkein. In being no longer able to do this kind of sculptural woodwork that required strength and dexterity, he felt he had lost something of who he was. “Losing your sense of purpose is terrifying; it is as though your identity has been taken away”.
This project allows him to do something extraordinary; to allow people to talk again about our national collective past, to remember men who endured unimaginable pain, for the sake of our freedom.
He is also able to achieve the incredible, by hand stitching these vast numbers of shrouded figures, he shows that anything is possible. If someone says ‘you can’t’ the only thing to do, is show them how you can.
Rob is crowdfunding to pay for materials for Shrouds of the Somme, please help him achieve his extraordinary goal and pledge to support it. A £50 pledge will mean you can have one of the named shrouded figures after the exhibition in London in 2018, there are also many other rewards to choose from.